Written at a quiet café on the outskirts of Cambridge, UK and dispatched to silicon.com via a corporate WLAN
Even before I was born the 'Three Laws of Robotics' had been voiced by Isaac Asimov through his short stories and debated by philosophers.
At the time it all seemed pretty academic and soundly in the realms of science fiction. But soon World War Two, the invention of the transistor, the space race and the arrival of the microprocessor quickly made it all very real.
Today the production of just about everything we eat, wear, use and interact with involves robots - a lot of robots! So fast has the transformation been that we have not, by and large, bothered to invoke any laws to ensure that safety of man over machine which Asimov outlined. In the meantime the sci-fi industry, with Hollywood's help, has had a ball with robot-based stories such as Terminator, I, Robot et al.
In the real world we don't have to look far to find the more sinister side of these invaluable and all-human-life-supporting machines. A couple of years ago I first encountered a robotic mine destroyer that looked very similar to an intelligent torpedo.
More recently there has been the terrestrial version. This looks something like a small lawn mower, sans handle and tether, and can be used to locate land mines or targets. It can also be used as a mobile land mine. In the extreme these can be designed to roam through buildings and search caves and battlefields for anything giving a healthy infrared signature. Then they just 'cuddle up' and explode!
Last month it was revealed that the first flying remotely operated vehicle (ROV) with guns had been given operational status in an arena of war.
So what happens next? I reckon the human will soon be removed from the loop altogether and these devices will be let free to hunt down prey and autonomously make the decision of whether their victim lives or dies on the battlefield.
We might well also see them shouldering some responsibility for civil policing in cities and problem areas. When all this happens we should remember: we gave them the guns; we chose to arm them; and we chose to ignore Asimov's rules.
Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.